Friendship by Frances F. Denny
  • courtesy of the artist
  • Friendship by Frances F. Denny

While assembling “Feminism (n.): Plural,” her new show for Woman Made Gallery, Claudine Isé, the gallery’s new executive director, used Roxane Gay’s discerning essay collection Bad Feminist as her inspiration. The result is a display of work by 35 artists that encompasses various feminist themes. I recently interviewed Isé about the show and her thoughts on the role of feminism in the art world.

Zara Yost: What specific aspects of Gay’s book inspired this exhibition?

Claudine Isé: I didn’t focus on any one particular essay in the book. “Feminism (n.): Plural” is not meant to be an illustration of Gay’s ideas. What inspires me most about Bad Feminist, actually, was the author’s wonderfully conversational approach to writing it. Gay writes like she’s talking to you—and that’s my favorite kind of writer! She’s smart as shit but not academic-y or preachy. Bad Feminist is radically accessible, and radically empathetic, and both of those qualities are important to me. I used the book as a touchstone for generating responses, not as an academic reference point.

  • Courtesy Woman Made Gallery
  • Claudine Isé, center, with gallery coordinator Sydney Stoudmire and founder Beate Minkovski

In her book Feminism is For Everybody, Bell Hooks wrote that lifestyle feminism is “the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women” and that the hazard of such a perspective is that “this way of thinking has made feminism more acceptable because its underlying assumption is that women can be feminists without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture.” Does the intention of “Feminism (n.) Plural” differ from so-called lifestyle feminism?

My intent with “Feminism (n.): Plural” is to engage artists and viewers in a conversation about what feminism looks, acts, and sounds like today, certainly not in a prescriptive way but rather as an invitation to participate. All of the works in the exhibition were selected by me through an open call process, so the resulting exhibition is intended not as my own personal curatorial statement about what feminism should or should not be, but instead, as a snapshot of a variety of artists’ take on what feminism means to them. I do agree with Hooks that feminism at its core must be about changing the culture—and to do that, we humans have to be open to changing ourselves.

I wasn’t looking for works that were didactic or that were trying to make a statement about feminism with a capital F. I was looking for works that I thought would provoke a lively, even raucous, conversation about what feminism is, was, and can be.

I received a wide variety of submissions to this show—from about 200 artists total—and from that I tried to create something that was reflective of the major themes present in those submissions as a whole. I did receive one entry from an artist whose work was arguing that a pro-life position could be feminist. I thought about what it would mean to include that piece in the show, but I chose not to include it. I guess that’s where I personally draw the line. I agree with Hooks when she says you can’t be pro-life and feminist at the same time.

You mention in the description of the exhibition that multiple ethnicities are represented as well as age ranges.

The paragraph you quoted above comprised the text we put out in the original call for art. Through that text, I was hoping to solicit a range of viewpoints on contemporary feminist practices, and I was mostly pleased by the diversity in responses. The show wound up leaning towards the “young” side of the age spectrum, but I think it’s fair to say it’s a multigenerational exhibition.

There are works by very young artists who are still in MFA programs alongside artists who are middle-aged and/or postmenopausal. I would have loved to receive more culturally diverse submissions than I did, but even so, there are artists in the show whose works open up discussion of the experience of black feminists, feminists hailing from the Middle East. One thing I also want to point out is that the public programs we’ve scheduled throughout May and June are very much a part of the “Feminism (n.): Plural” exhibition. Those talks, performances, and symposia are meant to continue the conversation that the individual works in the show start. An art exhibition can only do so much.

You also mention the inclusion of nonconforming gender identities.

There are several works in the show that look at trans identities from various perspectives. But by using the term “nonconforming” I wanted to open it up to possibilities I personally might not be aware of, outside of the term “trans” too.

What is the definition of “feminism” for you specifically?

I could write an entire essay in response to this question or a brief summary. Because it is 4:28 PM, I’m still at the gallery and I have to finish writing answering these questions, then head out into heavy traffic at 5 PM to pick my daughter up from school by 6 PM, then bring her home, make sure she’s done her homework, fix her something sort of healthy for dinner even though there’s nothing in our fridge because I haven’t had time to grocery shop this week because we’ve been installing our two new exhibitions all week and my husband is traveling on business. . . . I will give you the brief answer: for me, feminism is about advocating for gender equality in every realm of life, society, politics, and culture. It’s not only about conviction—it’s about advocacy and, as Bell Hooks argues, it’s about making real change both on the political level as well as the personal level.

You refer to feminism as being an ever-evolving concept. Where do you think it is in society right now?

It depends on what society you’re talking about and whose society in particular. In popular culture, I’ve noticed plenty of young female performers eschewing the ridiculous framework “I’m not a feminist but . . .” and instead embracing the term “feminist” proudly. Generally speaking, in the United States, the struggle for gender equality still has a long way to go.

And what about in the art world?

One example of art world feminism in action, as it were, can be seen through the exhibition Woman Made has mounted in tandem with “Feminism (n.): Plural.” The Gallery Tally Poster Project is organized by Los Angeles-based artist Micol Hebron (she’ll be giving a talk just prior to our opening reception, on Friday, May 15, at 5 PM); it’s a crowd-sourced collaborative effort to tally the ratio of male to female artists in commercial galleries in different cities across the United States. Here at Woman Made Gallery, we’ve just released a study conducted by gallery staffers in 2013 that looked at male/female representation ratios in commercial galleries too. Accompanying our study is a fantastic essay written by Professor Joanna Gardner-Huggett of DePaul University that analyzed the data WMG collected. In that essay, Professor Gardner-Huggett argues that “data collection is one of the oldest and continues to be one of the most effective tools of feminist protest. When museums and galleries are faced by the reality of actual demographics being circulated in public, they are forced to respond.”

I love that observation; one often thinks of data collection and tallying as an abstract, fundamentally dull processes. However, art world reckoning tactics like the Gallery Tally Project bring the data collection process alive, in this case through hundreds of vibrantly colorful, in-your-face posters that use numbers and percentages to show that the commercial gallery system is still not representing female artists on equal par with men.

What are your goals as WMG’s new executive director?

My goal is to help make Woman Made Gallery into a vibrant hub for contemporary feminist inquiry and a venue for visual-art-based social justice projects advocating for gender equality, all the while hewing to our organization’s core mission, which is to cultivate, promote, and educate the public about the work of women artists.

What is like working at an all-woman gallery?

Wow, it may sound surprising, but I’ve never framed my current workplace using those terms before. I work alongside a variety of different human beings, and I truly don’t think of my workplace as “all-woman.” I think a lot of people nowadays are realizing that the feminist project is not confined to women only—it’s a humanist project and very much includes male-identified people too. Here at Woman Made Gallery we welcome the participation of men here and I love that our current exhibition includes work by two male-identified artists who are excited and proud to be part of this project.

“Feminism (n.):Plural,” through 6/25, Wed, Thu, and Fri noon-7 PM, Sat and Sun noon-4 PM, Woman Made Gallery, 685 N. Milwaukee, 312-738-0400,, free.